Sen. Wyden stresses gains in collaboration

wyden in JD

JOHN DAY - Forests and the suffering Grant County economy were the No. 1 topic of discussion when U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden came to visit last Friday, July 8.

Wyden, who had toured Ochoco Lumber Co.'s new Malheur pellet plant earlier in the day, was highly encouraged that jobs, and the economy, can be boosted, using collaboration between industry and conservation groups as a tool.

Wyden said he'd like to see an increase the number of people working for the company from the current 80 in the county to 200 earning "family wages."

"The community has really shown it can make a path to a better future," he said, commending Ochoco managing director John Shelk for efforts to get the pellet plant going, assisted by stimulus dollars.

After hearing that the Malheur National Forest isn't seeing litigation on its timber projects, the senator said he was also confident that the collaborative approach being followed by the Forest Service is the right direction. Collaboration also is a key feature of the proposed Eastside Forests Restoration, Old Growth Protection and Jobs Act, sponsored by Wyden but yet to be approved by Congress.

Wyden, who described himself as "a multiple use guy," heard frustrations from various people, who don't feel that the solutions are coming fast enough. While he said that trust needs to be built between the opposing factions, some residents said they don't want more rules and regulations. They expressed concern that his bill would add another layer of bureaucracy.

Wyden also took input on issues such as health care, particularly for veterans; Medicare; education; and tourism and recreation in Grant County.

Saying "healthy forests equal healthy economy," Wyden said he wants to triple the number of local workers in the forest industry and to increase the number of sawlogs going to local mills. He sees promise in the previously unlikely partnership between Shelk and Andy Kerr of Oregon Wild.

Wyden noted that wildfires that are occurring are because of years of neglect. The forests "need to be thinned. The material needs to get to places like Ochoco, to create wood products."

Prairie City resident Larry Blasing said the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which guides the Forest Service's planning process, "has taken our industry away from us." He also spoke against the Equal Access to Justice Act, which, he said, "created a whole generation of lawyers."

Wyden said there needs to be a balance between giving people the chance to be heard, and being able to limit the delays in the planning process.

"We need to build the kind of trust like John (Shelk) and the environmental community are doing. They never dreamed they'd be working together. People are now working together in collaborative projects with Forest Service people. Trust goes more toward reducing litigation than anything else."

When it was noted that some people don't want to be part of collaboration because their views are too far from the middle, Wyden said, "It takes an amazing amount of guts to do it."

Doug Gochnour, who retired in January as supervisor of the Malheur National Forest, said the Forest Service puts massive amounts of energy into getting environmental documents through the planning process, and in getting them to be bulletproof from litigation.

Gochnour also noted that "42 pots of money" comprised the Forest's budget. "It needs to be simplified to 5," he said.

Wyden asked Gochnour to share suggestions on how to remedy the situation.

Wyden said he voted for former Idaho Sen. Dirk Kempthorne's bill to revise the Endangered Species Act, which would have allowed local, on-the-ground implementation. Wyden lauded the work of Resource Advisory Committees as an example. "What you do in John Day is not how you do it in Chicago or Tallahassee," he said.

Grant County Judge Mark Webb said the Forest needs to have more discretion on use of its money.

King Williams asked Wyden if his Eastside bill will pass the House, and noted that the Forest Service is limited in the number of projects it can do, because of limited funding.

"How do we get from where we are, to where we need to be?" he asked.

Wyden said "There's no question you need additional resources."

Zach Williams said that because of collaboration that's taking place now, "we're doing pretty good job without your bill."

Dave Traylor said the logs now being hauled to local mills are "a pittance. This place is at high risk."

"The Co-gen is too little, the West is at great risk. We're hurting now," said

Long Creek rancher Sharon Livingston also pointed out the high fire risk of the area. The county, she said, can provide food with its water and grass, and lumber for housing, but all could be lost to fire.

Wyden also asked for input from Livingston, noting he is working with the agricultural community to develop a farm bill in Congress.

He also said he's voting this week on a controversial bill on international trade, in order to boost Oregon's business overseas. Wyden said he wants to aid the state's businesses that grow or add value to products.

"The ag groups are really behind it," he said.

As for other topics, Katie Hoffman of Canyon City said that veterans services are difficult to access in the area. When faced with a health emergency, she had to drive to Portland. Also, she said, she must drive 140 miles each month for regular blood work. Having a local clinic would save the Veterans Administration a lot of money, she said.

Bob Houser, administrator of Blue Mountain Hospital, concurred, and noted that he'd inquired as to location of a veterans clinic in John Day. Having been told a study was being done, he later learned by reading the newspaper that a clinic was being located in Burns. When contacting the agency, he was told there was no option for a local facility.

Wyden said he hadn't heard of this issue, and would investigate.

Wyden said he's on the budget committee, and wants to make veterans' care, and care "at home" in one's community a priority, even in the current budget climate.

"There are gonna be some tough budget decisions," he said, noting there is a bipartisan effort which could include changes to the corporate tax rate.

When questioned about the security of Social Security, Wyden said it is a separate trust, not affiliated with the remainder of government spending, although it needs an adjustment "sometime down the road."

Wyden said he's concerned that 60 percent of Medicare is spent on 10 percent of the population, and that the most serious patients need care at home.

"We can save some money. In addition to cutting, we've got to do some growing," he said.

Wyden also commented on a question from the audience about whether everyone should be getting Medicare. The senator said that some Medicare changes have already taken place for the affluent population of the country. People like Donald Trump, he said, "shouldn't get a subsidy with your tax dollar when we're in this financial shape."

Grant School District No. 3 Superintendent Mark Witty was concerned about the effect of rules and regulations on school spending.

"A large percentage of our budget is to fill out forms," he said.

Witty also noted the No Child Left Behind requirement that disabled persons must test as well as the college-bound isn't feasible.

Wyden said he wasn't aware of the requirement, and asked Witty for specific examples of areas which need to be worked on.

When asked a question regarding money available to develop recreational assets in the county, Wyden directed a staff member to assist in pursuing Title 3 or other grant monies.

Because of the debt ceiling issue, said Wyden, he doesn't anticipate "any checks coming out," although "tourism and recreation are an important part of the economy."

Dale Stennett of John Day asked "When is the U.S. going to start spending less?" He also questioned whether the U.S. is in the same financial position as Greece.

"There's no way we are in worse shape than Greece. They were paying close to 0 percent interest," said Wyden.

The senator said spending needs to be cut, and that perhaps $4 trillion can be cut from the current debt of $14.3 trillion. "We need to make a large down payment. This is a difficult situation. A lot of people get mad when cuts are made to military spending, subsidies and Medicare."

Except for Stennett's question, Wyden concluded the town hall by noting that no one, in the 1-1/2 hour session, asked a question on foreign policy. "I know it's not that you're not concerned, but realize you have more pressing issues," he said.



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